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Hoodwinked During America's Civil War: Confederate Military Deception

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: July 28, 2006 
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'In the conditions of real war, the feeling of uncertainty is magnified, and this makes the opponent much more sensitive to crafty deception — so that even the most threadbare ruse has succeeded time after time.'
– Sir Basil Liddell Hart

Desperate times require desperate measures, and in warfare few are more cunning — or dangerous — than the desperate. Although the Federals did manage to pull off their fair share, it was the Confederates who were responsible for the majority of the hoaxes that were perpetrated during the Civil War. This stands to reason considering the South's predicament. Desperately lacking in both men and materiel, Rebel commanders were often forced to resort to correspondingly desperate measures, such as deception, in order to mask or offset those deficiencies. Some, including famed cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest, would even attain near legendary status for their seemingly magicianlike talents. It was Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, however, who best defined the Confederate tricksters' creed when he wrote, "Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy."

Not surprisingly, Southern commanders developed a particular affinity for Quaker guns. By war's end they would become veritable masters of the bogus battery ruse, employing it at such places as Charleston Harbor; Corinth, Miss.; Columbus, Ky.; Richmond; Shreveport, La.; and Corpus Christi and Galveston, Texas. The Quaker was, however, but one of the many devices to be found in the Rebel bag of tricks. In fact, the methods for deceiving an opponent were limited only by the trickster's imagination. In the category of Civil War deception, the names John B. Magruder, P.G.T. Beauregard, Forrest and Robert E. Lee stand above the rest.

John B. Magruder
Known to his contemporaries as "Prince John," Magruder was renowned for his florid and sometimes theatrical bearing. Accustomed to living "like a grand seigneur on a line officer's pay," he would often go to remarkable lengths in order to keep up a lavish appearance. Given these characteristics, it should not be surprising that Magruder would have been entirely in his element as he fought for a fledgling nation whose own resources were stretched beyond its means.

Magruder's first curtain call came in April 1862 at Yorktown, where he was confronted with the task of impeding Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's advance on Richmond until reinforcements could arrive. His main problem lay in the fact that he could muster no more than 13,600 men with which to hold off an estimated 55,000 Federals.

As it developed, the Army of the Potomac's progress was brought to a grinding halt by the unexpected course of the Warwick River. Military maps of the time had it running parallel to Maj. Gen. Erasmus Keyes' intended route when, in fact, it ran directly across his path. Operating on McClellan's left flank with the IV Corps, Keyes was even more disturbed by the discovery of equally unexpected enemy fortifications on the opposite bank of the severely flooded stream. As he surveyed the situation, Keyes could also hear the foreboding sounds of drumrolls and of cheering men emanating from behind some woods to the enemy's rear. Even more distressing for Keyes was the sight of enemy columns filing across various gaps in the woods. Sufficiently impressed by what he had seen and heard, Keyes concluded that the enemy's position was "a strong one" and that further reconnaissance would be required before any attempt could be made to take it.

In truth, most of what Keyes had seen or heard had been nothing more than a grand illusion, compliments of Magruder. The defenses that stretched along the entire 14-mile length of the river had been real enough, but due to a lack of sufficient troops, most were only lightly manned. To throw off the Federals, a handful of Magruder's men had been kept marching from one location to another. Arriving at a designated scene, the soldiers-turned-actors would then go about entertaining their Yankee audience with a staged setting depicting a strongly garrisoned position. Once satisfied that the onlooking Federals were suitably impressed, the troupe would then proceed to the next position and put on a new show. Keyes was oblivious to the fact that many of the enemy columns he had observed filing through those various gaps were often the same units, which had simply doubled back under concealment of the woods.

As for the cheering, the drumrolls and the general commotion that was emerging from behind the woods, the majority of these noises had been nothing more than engineered sound effects, designed to complete the illusion of a large army. With considerable irony, Keyes wrote, "Wherever the enemy has shown himself I have shown a force to confront him, and I think he must suppose I have an immense army." Keyes did not know the half of it.

Eventually McClellan, too, became convinced that Magruder had twice his actual numbers. Already plagued by a string of recent problems both on the Peninsula and back in Washington, McClellan opted to lay siege to Yorktown. In the end, the Confederates, including Magruder and his troupe of players, would exit stage right before McClellan's artillerists were finally able to bring their siege guns to bear. Adding insult to injury, Magruder left a few Quakers behind in the abandoned works. For John Magruder, all the world truly was a stage.

P.G.T. Beauregard
A flamboyant figure to be sure, Beauregard seems to have had a natural flair for trickery. At Charleston Harbor, his use of Quakers and various other contrivances would play an essential role in warding off the Union blockading vessels. At Petersburg in June 1864, the hard-pressed and severely outnumbered Creole devised a series of ruses that ultimately kept Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's numerically superior forces at bay until Lee's reinforcements could arrive. His most famous ploy, however, took place at Corinth in May 1862. On the Federal side, it was Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck who was initiated into the realm of Confederate deception.

Following a sluggish month-long advance from Pittsburg Landing, Halleck's forces — numbering well over 100,000 — finally reached Corinth on May 28. Coming up against the enemy's fortifications, Halleck was immediately struck by the apparent strength of the bastion. Having already convinced himself that the enemy's numbers were equal if not superior to his own, he cautiously proceeded to invest the stronghold. Peering out from behind these formidable works was Beauregard's Army of Mississippi.

On the night of the 29th, many in the Federal lines were kept awake by the constant sound of trains and of men cheering as each one of these arrived. One of those sleepless Federals was John Pope, commanding the Army of the Mississippi on Halleck's left flank. Unnerved by all the commotion, Pope finally wrote Halleck, "The enemy is re-enforcing heavily, by trains, in my front and on my left. The cars are running constantly, and the cheering is immense every time they unload in front of me. I have no doubt, from all appearances, that I shall be attacked in heavy force at daylight." Perhaps Pope's anxieties had been heightened by the equally ominous sight of Rebel artillerists standing by their guns, their figures silhouetted by myriad enemy campfires. Certainly the sounding of taps and tattoo, being played all along the Confederate lines, would not have helped matters any.

Whatever misgivings Pope and Halleck may have had, these were cast aside the next morning when it was learned that the enemy had stolen away during the night. They, along with many others in the Union rank and file, had been taken in by an old-fashioned sleight of hand. In truth, the Rebel force had scarcely exceeded 50,000 fighting men, and faced with such overwhelming odds, Beauregard wasted no time in devising a plan aimed at getting his troops out of their precarious situation.

Contrary to Pope's belief, the Army of Mississippi had not been reinforced the previous night but was instead withdrawn from Corinth in a prescribed and orderly fashion. To mask the evacuation, Beauregard had arranged for an empty train to be run back and forth along the Memphis & Charleston tracks. It was also he who had instructed the men to cheer every time it rolled in, thereby giving the impression reinforcements were arriving. The sounding of taps (played by a single band that had been shifted from place to place) and the seemingly endless stream of campfires had also been nothing more than embellishments on the theme. To complete the illusion, drummers had even been left behind to beat reveille on the morning of the 30th. As for the Quaker guns, most were still manned by stuffed dummies, many bearing painted-on grins to torment the Federals all the more when discovered.

It could genuinely be said that, at Corinth, Beauregard's hand had been quicker than Halleck's eye.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest was without question the most daring and cunning cavalryman to emerge from the Civil War. So legendary were his exploits that he is now widely remembered as "the wizard in the saddle."

Many adages have been ascribed to Forrest, the most famous of course being "Get there first with the most men." Less famous but equally intuitive was his maxim that stressed the need to "keep up the scare." It was during the earlier of his two famous Tennessee raids that Forrest first put his own wise words into practice. In the early morning hours of July 13, 1862, he and his 1,400 horsemen swept down on the strategically important hamlet of Murfreesboro. Slumbering peacefully there were 1,040 Union soldiers belonging to two infantry regiments whose separate camps were situated 1 1/2 miles apart.

Almost immediately, Brig. Gen. Thomas T. Crittenden — the garrison's recently appointed commander — was captured along with his entire guard. As these events were unfolding, a number of Confederate sympathizers were rescued from the local jail while, elsewhere in the town, large quantities of equipment and supplies were also being "liberated" from Union hands. Most commanders would have considered all of this a good day's work, but not Forrest. "I did not come here to make half a job of it. I'm going to have them all," he would reply when urged to quit while he was ahead.

As for the garrison's troops, those who had not already been shot or captured as they scrambled out of bed did eventually manage to form a line of battle. On the eastern edge of town, the 9th Michigan gave a good account of itself and could conceivably have fought on. But finally, under a flag of truce, Forrest duped Lt. Col. John G. Parkhurst into believing that the rest of Crittenden's force had been captured and that no quarter would be given should the 9th continue to resist. The issue having been put to a vote, the regiment, along with a detachment of cavalry, ultimately surrendered en masse.

Forrest now turned his attention to the 3rd Minnesota, which, together with a four-gun battery, was still holding out 11¼2 miles northwest of town. Forrest must not have relished the thought of going up against those four guns, especially considering he had gone into action with no artillery of his own. Still, he was not going to be satisfied until he had bagged the whole lot. He issued his no-quarter terms once again, but this time Colonel Henry Lester, the 3rd Minnesota's commander, insisted on being given proof that the 9th Michigan had surrendered. Forrest complied with Lester's request by escorting him on a tour of the by now Rebel-controlled town. Once satisfied that the Michiganders had indeed capitulated, Lester felt he had no choice but to follow suit.

In addition to snaring Crittenden and his entire command, Forrest also seized a considerable amount of much-needed supplies. Intent on a clean sweep, he had the booty loaded onto 60 Union wagons that were, in turn, pulled by a bevy of captured horses and mules. Most prized of all, however, were the four guns that Lester had so graciously turned over. A "rare mixture of military skill…and bluff" is how one admirer summarized the Murfreesboro raid.

One of Forrest's more humorous stunts took place in May 1863. Following a grueling five-day cat-and-mouse chase that had stretched over 150 miles, Forrest finally caught up with his prey near Rome, Ala. Penned up were 1,400 worn and frazzled cavalrymen under Colonel Abel D. Streight.

In a smoke-and-mirrors display that included the transformation of two artillery pieces into a 15-gun array, Forrest eventually fooled Streight into believing he was severely outnumbered. Like Parkhurst and Lester before him, Streight was finally compelled to surrender. The story goes that Streight later became incensed when he learned that it was he who had actually outnumbered his wily opponent by a margin of 3-to-1. Furious, he demanded that Forrest return all surrendered weapons and further insisted that the two sides resume the fight. Of course, Forrest declined Streight's request. With a chuckle, he then patted his downtrodden captive on the shoulder and remarked, "Ah, Colonel, all is fair in love and war, you know." It is little wonder that William T. Sherman once scornfully referred to the conniving Confederate cavalryman as "that Devil Forrest."

Lee and Jackson
It was Robert E. Lee who masterminded one of the most significant ruses of the entire war. In May 1862, Lee surmised that a portion of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks' force in the Shenandoah Valley might be preparing to link up with Irvin McDowell's contingent at Fredericksburg. This was a cause of great concern to Lee, who recognized the danger McDowell would pose if sufficiently reinforced. As it developed, one of Banks' divisions was making its way toward Fredericksburg, where McDowell was preparing for a pincer movement against Richmond. Meanwhile, on the Peninsula, McClellan had been ordered to effect a junction with McDowell's left flank.

When he learned of McDowell's proposed movement, McClellan's reactions were mixed. Several weeks earlier, at the outset of his Peninsula campaign, the Army of the Potomac commander had been dismayed to learn that McDowell's I Corps had been withheld from him. Convinced that an insufficient number of men were left behind to protect the capital, President Abraham Lincoln had compensated for the perceived shortfall by retaining the bulk of McDowell's corps. Now, when it appeared as though McDowell's command was finally going to be released, McClellan learned that his control over these long-awaited troops would be severely restricted. "You will give no order, either before or after your junction, which can put him [McDowell] out of position to cover this city," wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. As if to emphasize the point, Stanton added, "The specific task assigned to his command has been to provide against any danger to the capital of the nation." It is clear from Stanton's message that the government was still somewhat apprehensive over Washington's security. Apparently Lee perceived Lincoln and Stanton's anxieties and, as a commander who was always ready to capitalize on an enemy's weakness, devised a plan by which those fears might be turned to the South's advantage. To accomplish this he looked to Stonewall Jackson, commanding the Valley District.

On May 16, Lee set events in motion when he counseled Jackson on the importance of preventing any of Banks' troops from reaching Fredericksburg. "A successful blow struck at him would delay, if it does not prevent, his moving to either place [Fredericksburg or the Peninsula]." Then came the crux of Lee's message: "Whatever movement you make against Banks do it speedily, and if successful drive him back toward the Potomac, and create the impression, as far as practicable, that you design threatening that line [emphasis added]." Still stinging from his defeat by elements of Banks' command at Kernstown on March 23, Jackson was more than pleased to comply with Lee's request.

Within a matter of days, Jackson pounced on a segment of Banks' force at Front Royal, causing Banks to scurry northward toward the Potomac. On the 25th, Jackson's "foot cavalry" caught up with Banks at Winchester, where the "successful blow" was finally delivered. Beaten, Banks limped over to the Maryland side of the Potomac. Ever mindful of Lee's instructions, Jackson now advanced on Harpers Ferry, thereby creating "the impression" Lee had so very much desired. Lincoln and Stanton anxiously monitored these events back in Washington.

Earlier that year, Stanton had astounded many, including Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, with his reaction to the news of the emergence of CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimac) from Hampton Roads. "He was at times almost frantic," wrote Welles, who went on to describe how Stanton's hysterics became contagious, even affecting a normally composed William H. Seward. Lincoln, too, was apparently infected by Stanton's paranoia, so much so that "he could not deliberate," and was repeatedly observed joining Stanton at the window overlooking the Potomac River, "to see if the Merrimac was not coming to Washington."

Now, in May, with Jackson lurking threateningly close to Washington's doorstep, Stanton was exhibiting those same traits. With each new report regarding Jackson's movements he became more and more nervous until finally he began sending "panic-stricken" messages to state governors. By all indications Lincoln again fell prey to Stanton's paranoia, and on the 24th he wired McClellan, "In consequence of General Banks' critical position I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell's movements to join you."

On the 25th, Lincoln's trepidation surged when he became convinced that the bulk of the Rebel army was massing for an attack on Washington. To McClellan he wrote: "I think the movement is a general and concerted one, such as would not be if he [the enemy] was acting upon the purpose of a very desperate defense of Richmond. I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defence of Washington. Let me hear from you instantly." In an attempt to mollify Lincoln, McClellan assured the president that "the mass of the rebel troops are still in the immediate vicinity of Richmond," adding, "The object of the movement is probably to prevent reinforcements being sent to me." Others, including McDowell, echoed McClellan's wholly accurate views. Perhaps due to Stanton's continued influence, and certainly to Lee's delight, Lincoln remained steadfast in his conviction, going so far as to write McClellan, "That the whole of the enemy is concentrating on Richmond I think cannot be certainly known to you or me."

As if to ensure that Lincoln did not have a change of heart, Jackson, whose force barely exceeded 17,000 men, maintained his threatening posture into the opening days of June. By then, "Old Jack" had surpassed even Lee's wildest expectations. Not only had McDowell not been reinforced, he and the greater portion of his command had been ordered by Lincoln to proceed to the Valley — away from McClellan and Richmond.

Having reached the Valley, McDowell, along with Banks and Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, was directed by Lincoln to combine in a three-pronged effort to entrap Jackson. In one of the most masterful campaigns of the war, Jackson threaded his columns through the Federal pincers, and defeated Frémont and Brig. Gen. James Shields, respectively, at the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic.

By June 15, Lincoln had finally caught on to Jackson's game. Echoing McClellan's May 25 counsel, the president now wrote Frémont, "[Jackson's] assigned work is to magnify the accounts of his numbers and reports of his movements, and thus by constant alarms keep three or four times as many of our troops away from Richmond as his own force amounts to. Thus he helps his friends at Richmond three or four times as much as if he were there." By then, however, the point was moot. On June 17, his mission accomplished, Jackson slipped out of the Valley to join Lee in a combined offensive against McClellan's now totally exposed right wing.

McDowell came away from the affair relatively unscathed. Even so, he must have agonized over the knowledge that he, along with 60,000 other valuable men, had been reduced to the status of pawns in what turned out to be nothing more than an elementary ruse. As for McClellan, he eventually gave up on the idea that McDowell would be released to him, as indeed he never was. Ultimately, "Young Napoleon's" Peninsula campaign came to an inglorious end on the banks of the James River. To what extent Lee's deceptive strategy had contributed toward that failure is a study in itself. That it did succeed in altering the course of events on the Peninsula is certain, and it is another reminder of why Lee is still known today as the "Gray Fox."

In his famous treatise The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, "All warfare is based on deception." More than 2,000 years later that tenet still holds true, just as it did on the battlefields of the Civil War. If somewhat rudimentary when compared to those of later wars, Civil War deceptions were no less effective. It is not the means as much as the result that counts.

Our tendency is to ridicule those who have been taken in by deceptive strategies, even labeling them "gullible" or "willing believers." If not unfair to most of the unwitting victims, this view demeans the sometimes considerable and often canny effort that went into many of those ruses. It might be more fitting if we were to look upon those who have fallen prey to military subterfuge not as dupes but as psychological casualties of war. This is especially so when we consider that throughout history, there have been relatively few military men who could boast that they "saw it coming." With that in mind, it is entirely fitting that our modern military men should refer to deceptive strategies as psychological operations, or psyops. As for the tricksters, we cannot help but admire them for their cunning and daring.


This article was written by Maurice D'Aoustand originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

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